Probably the greatest American rock band of all time.
Lord help me, I can’t chay-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay-aynge.
—Guess. Go on. Guess.
In late 2005, the self-appointed worthies who’ve taken it on themselves to assign homework and grade point averages to rock and roll, finally summoned up just enough common sense to announce that three of my favourite bands would be inducted into their ludicrous Hall of Fame during 2006: the Sex Pistols, Black Sabbath, and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
The Pistols, of course, refused to play nicely, and informed the assorted worthies that their Hall was a “piss stain”. By contrast, Sabbaff, those Alamo-defiling, bat-eating, wild boys of satanic metal, rolled over all-kitten-like to have their collective tummy tickled, despite having previously told the Rock’N'Roll Hall of Fame: “Just take our name off the list. Save the ink. Forget about us. The nomination is meaningless, because it’s not voted on by the fans. It’s voted on by the supposed elite of the industry and the media, who’ve never bought an album or concert ticket in their lives, so their vote is irrelevant.”
The Lynyrd Skynyrd that was inducted, of course, was the original Southern rock leviathan blighted by tragedy upon tragedy, and not the current touring cash cow led by family members who rhyme. As such, it was represented by the few street survivors, Kid Rock, and a plethora of relations, friends, and latter day replacements. Following Skynyrd’s induction, the Universal Music Group sprang into action, proving Ozymandias of Osbourne’s initial point for him in spades, by re-releasing the 1998 double CD compilation, The Essential Lynyrd Skynyrd, under its broad-church Gold branding.
As far as I can tell, there’s been at least a dozen Skynyrd compilations in the 30 years since the plane crash, and the very first thing that has to be said about Gold is that, like all its predecessors, this is neither an essential nor a definitive Skynyrd collection. The second is that, for all its many faults, it nonetheless underlines the frequently forgotten fact that Lynyrd Skynyrd was one hell of a fine band.
Indeed, Skynyrd was probably the greatest American rock band of all time, backing their triple threat guitar sound with exceptional songs that brought significant elements of blues, soul, and country music to the mix.
And they certainly knew their way around a musical introduction too. If any song anywhere has ever had a better opening than “I Ain’t the One” then I dearly want to meet it.
The first track on the first Lynyrd Skynyrd album, “I Ain’t the One” immediately established the band as a force of nature far beyond their native Southern constituency. There’s a simple countdown. One. Two. Three. And the tension is already palpable in the encircling misty echo. Cymbals seem somehow to be moving backwards like evil spirits across the swamp. A simple drum pattern stutters through the confusion. And then a circular saw riff hacks a path through the fog, offering four bars of pure rock’n'roll promise before a wolf whistle welcomes the sudden first peeled-off guitar solo of the eight or nine hundred that grace the album. And then as the solo slips slowly away whence it came, Ronnie Van Zant finally begins to tell us a typically simple, down-home Southern story.
Shotgun weddings are not his style, I do believe.
There are those who insist that Skynyrd’s debut album is actually called (Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd), but I prefer to believe it was a self-titled release with a handy pronunciation guide provided in parenthesis. Either way, from the opening countdown of “I Ain’t the One” to the final fade-out flourish of “Free Bird”, the sound of Lynyrd Skynyrd reached out far beyond the American South and won the band converts everywhere. Certainly, the industrial North West of England took Skynyrd to its heart forthwith. I personally would’ve gone straight out and sewn a Confederate flag to the back of something or other, if not for the sneaking suspicion that I would’ve looked like a complete twat.
Where Gold, like so many compilations, goes wrong is in assuming that all albums were created equally and that it’s important to reflect a band’s entire career. Not so. As the selections here prove quite conclusively, the essential Lynryd Skynyrd is actually their first two albums—the arguably self-titled debut and the equally powerful Second Helping, plus a handful of other noteworthy tracks. Just because, for example, “Saturday Night Special” and “Whiskey Rock-A-Roller” were the best songs on third album Nuthin Fancy, it doesn’t mean that they were ever good enough to justify the exclusion of the debut album’s “Things Goin’ On”, “Mississippi Kid” or “Poison Whiskey”. Similarly, Gimme Back My Bullets, though a decent record in and of itself, was far from a match for Second Helping, and there’s no rationale at all for omitting songs as fine as “Don’t Ask Me No Questions” and “The Needle and the Spoon” in order to make space for Gimme Back My Bullets’ “Double Trouble”, a live version of the title track, and an alternative acoustic version of “All I Can Do Is Write About It”. I will grant UMG that Second Helping‘s “I Need You” is a less than stellar song, but it’s still too good to make way for anything off Street Survivors other than “That Smell”.
“That Smell” is clearly Lynyrd Skynyrd’s best moment once you get past the pure Southern blues rock majesty—all Rolling Stones meets the Allman Brothers—of those first two albums. The riff is an uncompromising, unrelenting blues howl. The underpinning song describes the perils of the hedonistic rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle—“the smell of death surrounds you”. And the whole Dylanesque piece is as fine as anything The Bob Himself has written since Desire. Indeed, it puts me very much in mind of a marriage between Shot of Love‘s “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar” and “Caribbean Wind”, an out-take from the same recording sessions. And I mean that in a very good way.
Beyond “That Smell” and the inferior latter album fodder, there’s a couple of interesting old demos (available elsewhere) here and a little something-something called “Was I Right Or Wrong”. In 1971, two years before they finally started working for MCA, a fledgling Lynyrd Skynyrd recorded a long album’s worth of material at the Muscle Shoals studio in Alabama that was eventually released in 1998 as Skynyrd’s First: The Complete Muscle Shoals Album. “Was I Right Or Wrong” was the clear standout track from those sessions. Where much of Skynyrd’s First has an understandably and pleasantly raw, rough and ready feel, “Was I Right Or Wrong” carries a smooth, epic texture, moves from melancholic gentle-as-folk passages to anguished blues riffs and back again, and throws in large sections of “Gimme Three Steps” soloing for good measure.
Fortunately, although the first two Skynyrd albums are under-represented on Gold, this compilation does include the original studio versions of both “Simple Man” and “Tuesday’s Gone”, two of the band’s most authentically soulful numbers; “The Ballad of Curtis Loew”, a smack in the eye for anyone stupid enough to consider these southern boys racist; and Skynyrd’s marvellous version of J.J. Cale’s “Call Me the Breeze”. So there’s plenty here to love and to recommend. Just not enough to do the band justice.
Gold can, perhaps, be best summed up by the fact that both CDs finish with, whatever else, “Freebird”. The first, and superior, disc ends with the studio version recorded for that self-titled debut album. The second chooses to draw things to a close with the 13 minute version that featured on the band’s 1976 live album One More From the Road. Now a truly definitive compilation would have scorned that inferior recording from Atlanta for the truly astounding performance of the same song that Lynyrd Skynyrd turned in at Knebworth that same year, when they truly, completely and entirely blew away the headlining Rolling Stones in a blaze of Southern boogie glory.
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